Canberra Raiders world-class forward pack starting to take shape
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Canberra Raiders world-class forward pack starting to take shape

How do you fit four world-class second-rowers into your forward pack?

That's the jigsaw puzzle facing Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart as the Green Machine ramps up their preparations ahead of their first-round trip to the Gold Coast to face the Titans.

John Bateman and Josh Papalii could form an integral part of the Raiders middle.

John Bateman and Josh Papalii could form an integral part of the Raiders middle.Credit:Karleen Minney

Stuart has not only England's second row in his squad in Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman, but New Zealand's Joe Tapine and Australian international Josh Papalii.

Whitehead felt it would be an England and Kiwi back row, with Papalii set for a move to prop - although he was quick to add he wasn't sure what Stuart was thinking.

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He expected himself, Tapine and Bateman would fill the back row, while Bateman has set his sights on playing lock.

Whitehead's preferred position is the second row, but he's starred at lock for the Raiders in the past and was happy to play any role Stuart asked of him.

"We've all been playing in different positions in training. I think he's [Stuart] just working out what he thinks is best at the moment," Whitehead said on Wednesday.

"I wouldn't have a clue what he's thinking at the moment, it could be anything. I could be middle, or John or Taps. Papa will probably play middle anyway.

"I'll just hopefully be playing in the back row and pushing for that spot, but if he comes to me to play in the middle then that's what I'll have to do for the team then I'm going to do that."

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The 29-year-old workhorse felt the added flexibility in the Raiders pack could make them a more dangerous prospect.

Along with those four, they've also got Sia Soliola who can play both in the middle and the second row.

Back-up hooker Siliva Havili can also slot in at lock.

It's shaping as a more mobile, trimmed-down pack that is full of players that punch out big minutes.

Whitehead said that competition for spots would drive the forwards  through the pre-season, knowing they couldn't assume they had a jersey locked down.

"It gives us a little plus side. We've got a fair few 80-minute players in that pack now and it gives us an option of rotating," Whitehead said.

Elliott Whitehead expects to be part of an international back row.

Elliott Whitehead expects to be part of an international back row.Credit:Karleen Minney

"I reckon if we start me, John, Taps in the back row and lock, that'll be rotated around between us three. I haven't got a clue what he's thinking, but that's what I'd expect."

Bateman can also play in the centres and has even spent time at hooker for England.

But he feels more comfortable in the middle and that's where he was hoping to force his way into the starting 13.

He was excited about what a pack with a lot of "mobility and foot speed" could produce.

The departures of behemoths Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo has opened the door for a different look group of Raiders forwards.

That's without even mentioning the young guns like Emre Guler who are pushing for spots.

"I'd rather play 13 than centre if I had any choice at all, if I didn't play back row. I like being in the middle. It's probably more natural to me to play that position," Bateman said.

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"With us playing back row in the first place, you tend to get back-rowers that are more mobile. This pack's got quite a lot of mobility and foot speed, and I think it will really work well for us."

Whitehead said it would be an easy transition for Papalii from lock to prop, given there wasn't much difference between the two.

Papalii started last season in the second row, but switched to the No.13 jersey with great effect.

The 26-year-old has played in the middle for both Queensland and Australia.

"I'd imagine so, but not 100 per cent yet," Whitehead said when asked if Papalii was likely to move to the front row.

"In the modern day the prop and loose forward are pretty similar positions, they all do the same job so it won't make a big difference from what he was playing last year if he does end up doing that."

David Polkinghorne covers the Canberra Raiders, local rugby league, Canberra Cavalry, racing and cycling, along with every other sport, for The Canberra Times.

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